Wheelchair user rendered "handicapped".Handicapped and its twin handicap have been in the American lexicon for some time now but not always with the negative inferences of today.

Somewhere in the early or mid 17th century, someone invented a popular game called “Hand In Cap” which was a negotiated bartering game between players. As common vernacular would have it, this was soon shortened to “handicap”. The word usage spread and was ultimately applied at different times and places where situations needed to be equalized in order to afford participants in sporting events a fair chance.

So far it seems that our politically incorrect twins, handicapped and handicap, are not looking all that bad. By the mid 18th century, the words were being used in a number of sports that required a leveling of the playing field so participants had an equal chance at winning. Horse racing for instance still uses the terms handicapper handicapped and handicap. A handicap race in horse racing is a race in which horses carry different weights, allocated by the handicapper. The better horses will carry a heavier weight, to give him or her a disadvantage when racing against slower horses. A golf handicap is a numerical measure of a golfer’s potential ability. In stroke play, it is used to calculate a net score from the number of strokes actually played during a competition, thus allowing players of different proficiency to play against each other on somewhat equal terms.

Over time, the words came to be synonymous with placing someone at a disadvantage. It was only a short trip from meaning a competitive disadvantage in sports to having what were considered to be physical disadvantages or having a physical handicap. The words were then commonly applied to people with disabilities and various functional losses.

Keeping all of the above in mind, what is the noise these days about the political correctness of the words “handicap” and “handicapped”? Well, some of it is personal preference. Many people with disabilities don’t mind the handicap tag while others very much despise it and claim it is a social stigma, demeaning, and therefore generally disabling and insulting.

For many years now, people with disabilities have labored under the weight of some harsh identifiers. I can easily remember the days when someone with a spinal cord injury might be called handicapped or any one of many other names such as cripple, crip, gimp, gimpy, incapacitated, invalid, lamer, wheelchair bound, housebound, sufferer, victim, and other not so pleasant handles.

You might ask, where does all of this stand today? That’s not an easy question to answer. Offensive words and phrases vary, sometimes by location, by social groupings, by cultures, and of course with each individual. Most people now agree that both of the words are politically incorrect and should not be used.

In my personal opinion, there are no handicapped or disabled people. The spinal cord injured wheelchair user who can’t get inside of a building because there is no ramp or can’t ride a public bus because there is no lift is not “handicapped” or disabled. That person has been rendered disabled by society’s failure to provide accessibility to that building or bus. Society creates handicapped individuals whenever a person encounters insurmountable obstacles that are there because accessibility laws and standards are ignored or because they were not provided with appropriate assistive technologies with which to overcome obstacles.

United Spinal has a long history of fighting for an accessible society dating back to 1946 when our veteran members marched and demonstrated for accessibility in New York City. We strongly believe that “handicap” and “disability” can and should be eliminated not only through clinical means but by progressive changes in our society and physical communities.